THE BEAUTY OF NIGHT RIDES
BEHIND THE WHEEL: PRE-RUNNING THE BAJA 400 WITH MARC BURNETT
Fall is here, meaning that the end of Daylight Savings Time and Winter are on the way. With days getting shorter, most working people will ride at night during the week and even into weekends. Others, particularly in the desert southwest, have been riding at night to escape the sweltering heat of summer. Arizona doesn’t even do DST, and temperatures regularly stay into triple digits well after midnight. So, many UTV enthusiasts are experts at riding at night. I had two epic night rides with Marc Burnett, 2014 and 2017 SCORE UTV champion, and his new co-pilot Manny V, aka “The Flyin’ Hawaii’n,” as they pre-ran the Baja 400.
Wednesday before the race, Marc and Manny arrived in Ensenada after working on the race car and driving all night. We couldn’t do the start until Friday, so we loaded up Marc’s pre-runner Xrs Max, took Hwy 3 to Ojos Negros, hit the course around RM32, and would meet the chase truck at KM77. Marc would call out danger points for Manny to mark on the Lowrance. At Rancho Las Vaquillas, I spotted a really cool photo location, but then the Max overheated, as all the coolant had leaked out. Suspecting a blown head gasket, we waited a while and topped off with coolant. We met the chase truck at Independencia to top off again and sent Luis ahead for some Blue Devil head-gasket sealant. We stopped at the Valley T taco stand and then got fuel; by then the sun was done for the day.
Mike’s road was the worst I’ve ever seen it, as Hurricane Kay had caused massive flooding the week before, and it took out the cross-over road from Valley Trinidad to Hwy 1. As we wheeled into Mike’s Sky Ranch, we lost all brakes on the Monster Max. A torsion-bar link bolt had broken, and the link took out the left-front brake line. Marc clamped off the line with needle-nosed vice grips, and we bled the right-front brakes as Marc zip-tied the vice grips to the frame. We topped off with the last of the coolant and refilled the jugs with water before heading into the mountains behind Mike’s.
Man, the course was brutal, but the ride was epic! Traction was primo, and the lights lit up the vegetation (oaks, manzanita, cactus). It was so steep, Marc went to Low to save the belt. Going up was great, and Bernie said over the radio, “Not seeing all the daytime distractions helps me focus on the course.” Going up was awesome, and so was the long downhill section. Our brakes started squealing, and Marc had to correct for only having three brakes. Then we had no brakes again, as the fluid boiled at RM175. Bern and Fern turned around and gave us lights to work on the Monster Max, but Marc noticed that their car had loose A-arm mounts. So did ours, so we fixed both cars on the trail, bled the brakes, and topped off again, being down more than an hour.
We went up another mountain with perfect dirt and surreal vegetation – white cacti and plants that looked ice-covered in our lights, almost iridescent. I wanted to stop for photos, but we still had 45 miles to go for the night. It was incredible, and the clouds and ground fog brought out the moisture, so much so that Marc’s helmet comms were affected. Manny had to radio the other car, and I sat in back and watched the wonders of the night roll by. Finally we passed RM220, hit Hwy 1, and topped off with Pemex and water before reaching the Mission Inn in Vincente Guerrera. It was 2:30AM.
The next day started late as we tracked down the leak to a split thermostat (plastic?!?). We epoxied the thermostat but it split again before we got out of town. We found a hardware store and bought fittings to eliminate the thermostat, again having to drop the skid plate to get to the problem, this time on the sidewalk in front of the store. Starving by this time, we stopped for hamburgesas before hitting the course. By the time we got to the Pacific, the sun was setting on any chances of action photos for the day. We went inland to Punta Colonet after RM240, and the course snaked through stunning arroyos and forests. We hit sand washes near Erendira and through San Vincente, where the Policia pulled over the chase truck. Four Monsters later, we were back on track.
This part of the course was old and brutal with huge whoops and G-outs, but the traction and action were great. Past RM300, the roads smoothed out and Marc pinned it to catch Bern and Fern. Ripping through their dust, we caught them and Marc marked the kill with the big LED bar, like lazer tag. With the coolant woes fixed, we topped off with gas out of the chase truck’s tank in Santo Thomas, which had closed for the night. The course climbed out of ST through awesome oak-forest tunnels, until we hit an area that had burned. Huge hills were so silty, it was almost like duning. We scouted several alternate lines on one particularly steep and silty ravine, as it was sure to bottleneck.
Then we tried to scout a line around the mountain from a particularly tight and steep canyon section, that surely would bottleneck. The rock walls were too steep to get around any broken trophy trucks, but we couldn’t find any alternatives. Soon, we were back into epic oak forests, and the wheel ruts were black with moisture, but the sides and center were white sand. It was like riding in snow, but with better traction. As the trees and terrain opened up, Marc again pinned it to catch Fern, but this time it was more dusty, and trees lined the trail. I had white knuckles on the panic bars as we careened through the woods, and Marc got so close there was no dust before hitting the big LED. As we passed RM360, we passed granite boulders that made the Hammers look like pebbles, and Manny marked danger zones – a lot of them. Too soon, the good stuff was over, and we took Hwy 3 into Ensenada, but all the taco stands were closed. We hit the compound at 3:30AM, but it took a hot shower and another hour before I could doze off, it was so awesome.